The jobless rate for unskilled youth aged 15 to 19 is likely to climb 6 per cent to 28,000 by the end of the year, academics said yesterday. The prediction contrasts with a recent statement by the labour chief that the unemployment rate in the age group is expected to improve after the job market absorbs the recent influx of school leavers. Permanent Secretary for Economic Development and Labour Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said on Saturday the latest jobless rate for those aged 15 to 19 and not studying stood at 26.4 per cent - slightly better than last year. But based on figures released by the Census and Statistics Department, the Hong Kong College of Technology said the number of so-called non-engaged youth - those who fail to secure a school place and a job - rose 8.8 per cent to 26,400 in the first quarter of this year over the previous quarter, despite a recovering economy. The continuous learning institute said the number could hit 28,000 by the end of this year. The president and principal of the college, Chan Cheuk-hay, warned that the benefits brought by a recovering economy to the unskilled labour force had bottomed out and any future economic improvement would have little effect in easing youth unemployment. 'A stronger economy means society is looking out for better-quality people; the unskilled and the less qualified, as a result, will lag farther and farther behind,' Dr Chan said. The trend also coincides with a rise in the number of families who have to support one or more non-engaged children on a monthly income of less than $20,000. In the last quarter of 2005, 77.8 per cent of families with at least one non-engaged child earned a monthly income below $20,000 - a record high since the Sars period in 2003. Out of 24,500 non-engaged youth in the last quarter of 2005, 30 per cent came from households with incomes below $10,000. Dr Chan believes polarisation of the workforce is one of the main problems, as low demand for unskilled labour has forced more and more low-skilled workers out of their jobs, with their children falling victim to a vicious cycle of poverty. He urged the Education and Manpower Bureau to implement a new subsidy scheme for associate degree students to encourage students to continue their studies. The Labour Department said it had 9,000 vacancies for Form Five graduates last month, up 9.3 per cent on last year. A spokeswoman said the enrolment process for the Youth Pre-employment Training Programme and Youth Work Experience Training scheme had already begun for those who failed to get a place in Form Six or universities.